I'm not a scientific person. I don't read journals or watch Nova, and yet I still feel confident enough to speak here for a few minutes on the size of the universe, which many of us have been led to believe is infinite. I have a hard time trying to get my little mind around that one-in fact, the only personal reference I have to this concept came to me from the good Sisters of the Sacred Heart, who warned that if I died in mortal sin, my soul would burn in Hell for eternity. If my math is right, that adds up to infinity.
I spent the better part of my childhood living in fear, until one day I came to the rationale that if there was a God even remotely resembling the one they spoke of, he'd never do that to someone no matter how evil they were, especially to a child such as myself. At that point, I stopped worrying. Sort of.
I don't speculate about infinity for two simple reasons. First, I believe that all things must end, and second, because I've been to the end of the universe-I've seen it with my own eyes.
There was nothing magical about it at all. In fact, it was just a crinkly old brown paper bag cut up and hung out to dry, the kind one gets at the supermarket, only bigger. A lot bigger. It was tattered and fragile with age, fuzzy in spots, with tiny bits of thread sticking up like soft hair, so worn I could almost see right through it. It smelled like old vegetables. I leaned my nose into it, pushed and pushed, then pushed again, but couldn't break through.
I gave up and started crying, when something suddenly snapped like a whip, sucking up everything inside of the sound but me. A split second later, I was standing on the opposite side of that same old brown paper bag. I turned slowly. Instead of darkness, pinpricked with little glints of light we call stars, it was bright, with shimmering bits of black, like coal. They seemed to spin, leaving little trails of smoke that popped like fireworks, then showered colors that faded into little rainbows. Looking beyond that, I noticed a string of colored Christmas lights at the furthest end, flashing on and off in no fixed pattern.
I know this goes against the popular belief, but so what? Just because everyone says something is so doesn't necessarily mean that they're right-right? Aren't all times “modern” to those who live them, then relegated to the “primitive” past by those who come after? Wasn't the world flat, held up by elephants? Weren't leeches the height of medicine in the Middle Ages? And what about flying; remember how absurd that sounded until the Wright brothers came along? Don't we all have our own ideas about the unfathomable, any one of them as good as another?
Isn't that the freedom of an open mind, the ability to believe in possibilities, no matter how absurd they may seem to someone else?
The first line of Charles Olson's poem, “The Kingfishers,” reads, “What does not change / is the will to change.” I like that; it speaks of continuity and reaches toward the infinite. It reminds me of an old watch I have that rarely gives the right time. Whenever I look at its face, it says tomorrow.
Years ago, it never bothered me, but now, every time I rattle it and bang it against the side of my hand to get the real time, I experience this overwhelming sense of desperation. I am tired of fighting with it, and yet I can't bear the thought of throwing it away. I keep telling myself that one of these days I'm going to have to take it somewhere and get it fixed, but I never do.
And then there's Bob Dylan, who sang, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” Now that's an easier concept for me to grasp than infinity, even more so now that I've had my nose pressed firmly up against it. If you ain't moving, you ain't going nowhere-and if you ain't going nowhere, you're as bored as all hell. Everything starts to smell like old vegetables, and even the stars lose their glimmer. Your mind, once so perky and filled with ideas, starts shriveling up like an old prune and gives you nothing but gas. What once looked so infinite is now so finite you can taste it. And it's bitter.
In the end, the size of the universe is unimportant. It's the space you take up in it that counts, for that's all there is. The true test of the human spirit is to see things as they are, at the same time working hard to make them what they should be. It's no easy task, standing in two different worlds at the same time, but hey, someone's got to do it-right?